Ian Hamilton’s feisty heroine Ava Lee tracks down white collar fraud and retrieves ill gotten gains with an ancient and deadly form of martial arts. Think Jackie Chan meets Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And if the going gets a little rough sometimes, well Ava and her mentor Uncle like to think of themselves as the guardian angels of investors, restoring lives.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- How the prospect of dying got Ian writing
- Why the process of writing is ‘magical’ for him
- Ava Lee as guardian angel
- The one thing that’s most contributed to Ian’s success
- The crime writer at the top of his binge read list
- And how Ava’s mentor -‘Triad Uncle” – got his own series
Where to find Ian Hamilton:
Ian can be found at his website: http://ianhamiltonbooks.com/
On Facebook https://www.facebook.com/avaleenovels/
And on Twitter: https://twitter.com/avaleebooks
For more details, a full transcript follows: Note – this is a “close as” rendering of our full conversation with links to key points. (Not word for word)
Jenny: Hello there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and today Ian is going to tell us how he made a Chinese Canadian forensic accountant so sexy – yup – so sexy – that all eleven books in the Ave Lee series have been optioned for TV or movies.
Hello there Ian and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Ian: Thank you Jenny I am very pleased to be with you.
Jenny: Ian you’ve said you’ve had “40 years between books.” You wrote a very successful history book in the late 60’s that became a Book of the Month selection it was popular – and then business and government jobs intervened for forty years 2011 when you got the idea for Ava Lee and wrote four books in eight months. Have I got that right?
Ian: That’s true!
Jenny: So what was the “Once Upon a Time” moment that got you started on Ava’s story?
Ian: The “Once upon a time moment” was the prospect of death. I actually thought of Ava Lee in summer of 2009 and I was still running a business. It was very stressful at the time, there was a lot of money involved, and I was probably drinking too much. My wife sent me off to the doctor. She said ‘Your liver has got to be shot.” And my liver was perfect, but they found I had an aneurism. I ended up in one of the big old hospitals in Toronto for eight hours of surgery.
As I was being rolled back to the ward after surgery the orderly said to me “You room is in an old wing of the hospital. If you see any nuns, don’t talk to them.” And I said “Why wouldn’t I talk to a nun?” and he said “Because they are dead, and they only come to talk to you if they think you are going to die.”
So here I was, its the middle of the night heavily medicated I drugged up to the eyeballs, hearing noises, seeing shadows, and I was actually really terrified. And I lay there thinking I am going to die, and I’m going to die having not done a lot of the things I want to have done – and one of those was writing a book – or trying to write a book I should say.
So on my second day out I sold the shares in my business, and on the third day out I started writing a book.
Jenny: Wow. When you say write a book you obviously had already written a very successful non fiction book, so you’re talking here about fiction?
Ian: Fiction right, and I loved the crime mystery thriller genre but I had no clue what I was doing. No clue. When I started writing I had the name Ava Lee, which came to me from nowhere, and one sentence. No plot, I didn’t do an outline.
Jenny: Amazing. Just back tracking for a moment . . you didn’t see any nuns?
Ian: No! but when my wife came to visit me that evening she walked in through the door and she remembers said as she came through the door, I was yelling at her “Keep the nuns away, keep the nuns away.”
Jenny: You were obviously still sedated at that time. Well Ava Lee is a feisty Toronto-based forensic accountant – perhaps in your business life you’ve come against a few forensic accountants – but she’s got some very unusual traits.
Ian: Well you know – She came to me absolutely fully formed. I didn’t make a list of names I just sat down and wrote. I was writing for about a week and my wife came downstairs and said “What are you doing?” And I said “I’m trying to write a book” and she left. she came back a week later and she said “What is the book ab out?” And I said a Chinese Canadian lesbian accountant who chases bad debts for a living.” And she said “Oh for goodness sakes, Can’t you write about something you know. But she did, come to me absolutely fully formed.
Jenny: Why do you think she came as a Chinese Canadian?
Ian: Well at first I didn’t give it much thought, but as I started to do a few of these literary events, and I do quite a few of them, I kept getting asked the question “Where did she come from and people got tired of saying “I don’t know, I was medicated.” and then at one event this woman psychiatrist came up to me and said “You’ve got to stop saying you don’t know where she comes from, because you actually do. She is totally from your subconscious and what you are doing you are channelling all those years you did business in Asia, you are channelling your interest and love for Chinese culture history, you are channelling your tremendous respect for women, and being surrounded by strong women – and it all came together.
Jenny: The books cover some very different business worlds and very different places, they’re tremendously informative for people who don’t know anything about those worlds. I found the one on international art forgery particularly interesting, but we’ve got swindles in the seafood industry, online gaming. . . as you were travelling were you taking notes or did you have some involvement in all these areas of business?
Ian: I’ve never taken a note, but when I started to write I found I had a very good memory, and the first book, about the seafood scam, was one that I was right in the middle of. It really did involve a Chinese guy who trying to cheat a big US retailer of about $5 m worth of shrimp and I was a consultant to the retailer.
The numbers I used – the first four books are based on real crimes and the numbers are real numbers. So when I talk about the scam in online gaming for $50 or $60m – it really happened.
The art forgery idea – strangely enough after I finished the book – I was always interested in art fraud – but the second largest art dealer in the US was charged with a massive art fraud. She commissioned fake painting and sold them through her New York gallery. She was paying the painter $800 for paintings and selling them for $8 million.
Jenny: I read somewhere that you had bought art in the Faroe Islands. It was interesting to have the Faroe Islands in the art forgery book – I thought you must have been there or why would you introduce it into the story?
Ian: In all of my books – and the eleventh is coming out in January – I have only written about places I have physically been to. But I am very conscious of not writing travelogues. I want to give you a flavor of a place. Something eccentric about a place, something that makes it different.
Jenny Ava is pretty lethal in some of the ways she goes about collecting the money she is looking for. She is pretty ruthless quite shockingly so in one of the books . . .
Ian: Which one is that Jenny?
Jenny: Well I don’t want to have spoiler, if people are going to read it
Ian: Is it the Scottish banker in Indonesia, or the gamers in Las Vegas?
Jenny: It’s the one set in Macau. The Red Pole of Macau. Where her brother’s real estate investment is under threat . . . Let’s just say she has to take things into her own hands . . . .
Ian: Oh yes, there is that one too . . .I researched the ancient martial art, I have never practised it, but I fully researched it. I found it fascinating. It is a very old martial art, and was only taught mentor to student, one on one. Started out father to son, and then expanded to mentor to student. It is very rarely practised, but it is real. The whole point of bak mei – that’s what it’s called – is to cause damage. It is not pretty, it is attacking the most sensitive parts of the body… the eyes, the ears, nerve endings – and she has become a very good practitioner of the art and she needs to be actually.
But after I had written five or six books I got an email from a bak mei instructor in San Francisco who said he had never read a book with bak mei in it before and he wanted to congratulate me on its accuracy.
Jenny: How has Ava evolved over the series?
Ian: She has matured. I started writing one book, then two books, I never thought when I started out that I was writing a series. When I realised I was writing a series I was very aware of not wanting to repeat myself. I think that’s the death knell of great series. The writer repeats the same thing, and the character doesn’t change. I decided I wasn’t going to do that. my character had to change.
I was writing the third book when I realised how the sixth book was going to end. And so a lot of things were planted in the third book that come to fruition in the sixth book. And between Book 1 and Book 11 her life has changed totally. She is no longer in the debt collection business she is in the investment business, she is surrounded by different people – well some different people. Her relationship with Xu in Hong Kong has become very strong, she still has ties to the triads, but she has changed a lot and by the eleventh book her love life has changed a lot.
Jenny: You’re very specific about Ava’s fashion sense – lots of brands mentioned in what she wears, and her accessories – her watch, her bags. Do you have advice from someone young and female on this or are you also “up there” when it comes to knowing the latest trends for smart 30 somethings?
Ian: I did it myself Jenny. And again, I have three daughters and a very fashion conscious wife. I used to go to Italy on business and to Asia on business and they would would hand me a little list of the things they wanted me to buy. So through them I discovered the Shanghai Tang stores, I discovered all sorts of things. But then again, the fact that she is so branded is cultural. You don’t meet many young Chinese women who are not branded. It is part of their persona. And even though Ava is Canadian, her mother is very much part of that group and she has passed that on to Ava.
Jenny: You’ve sold TV and movie rights for the whole series I think – when are we likely to see Ava on small or big screens?
Ian: I’m told – I was told last night so your timing is perfect – you will see Ava on the small screen in late 2018. That’s the first book, the Water Rat of Wanchai. They are turning it into a four by one hour series. And the plan is, if that one goes well, to turn the remaining books into six by one hour series
Jenny: The series is published in several countries in Europe and South America – any interest in Asia yet? You’d think Ava would be a sure hit in Hong Kong . . . .
Ian: Little Brown did publish the first two books in Hong Kong and Singapore and I don’t think they did well enough to keep publishing them.
Jenny: Maybe it has something to do with the marketing because I’m convinced they would be popular.
Ian: I hope so Jenny. It’s got nothing to do with the Chinese aspect, because the Chinese community in Canada is like my biggest fan base. They are tremendously supportive.
Jenny: In more general terms (moving away from specific book focus)
BBC Culture named you as one of ten “must read” mystery/crime writers internationally. That must have been a pretty exciting moment for you – I wonder who else on the list did you feel especially privileged to be named alongside?
Actually there was, and that’s Peter Temple, he’s an Aussie.
Jenny: Is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career, more than any other, that’s been the secret to your success?
Ian: There are a couple of things: I don’t have an outsize ego, and I barely consider myself to be a writer. I consider of myself as to be a really good story teller, and I have created a roster of characters that are compelling, and that’s because they really live in me. But I have a wonderful editor. A young woman, 5’2″ Korean Canadian, same age as Ava, and she has been phenomenal. Janie – that’s her name – has made every book better and it has been wonderful having her along for the ride.
Jenny: It must be good to have an editor who is a young woman the same age as Ava. She’d have particular insight into some of the ways Ava would react.
Ian: Indeed she does Jenny, she’s always reminding me! We do collaborate really well, but she’s never given me a story suggestion, she has never made a change to Ava or any of the other characters. Her main contribution is structure and pacing, and sometimes to tell me something is politically incorrect – something Ava is doing that is . . .
Jenny: If you were going to organise a magical mystery literary tour for your any of books, where would you suggest readers go?
Ian: I think the Wild Beast was an interesting book. It took you to China, to Wuhan, which is a tremendous new developing city, and then to Hong Kong which I adore, then on to Northern Denmark which is a part of the world where I have spent a lot of time, and then to the Faroe Islands – and whoever goes to the Faroe Islands? I went there two or three times on business and it fascinated me because it was the most different place in the world.. that’s where when the Vikings were going from Denmark to Iceland, if they had troublesome people on board they threw them overboard at the Faroe Islands.
Jenny: Is there a mystery in your life that could be the plot line for a story?
Ian: Well I’ve already talked about the shrimp story – which I used in the first book . . . there probably is, but I would never tell you.
Jenny: Moving on now to Ian as reader:
Have you authors that you’ve binge read – either now or in the past If so who – any recommendations for listeners?
Ian: Binge read, binge wait for, I’ve have had authors that I just can’t wait for their next book. But let me name someone first who isn’t in the crime mystery genre, and that would be Patrick O’Brien. who wrote the Jack Aubrey novels and they are totally binge worthy and wonderful, and then there would be Alan Furst ‘s spy novels set in Second World War, and Michael Dibdin and the Aurelio Zen novels
Have you heard of Donald Westlake? He was an American crime mystery writer who was very prodigious and his agent said to him “You have to stop.” So instead of stopping he wrote under the pen name of Richard Stark. At least three or four of his books have been made into films.. His character’s name in the series is Parker and through 20 books – I’m standing in front of my bookcase here – I’ve got 12 or 14 of them here – through 20 or more books you never know Parker’s first name or anything much about him but he carries you through these wonderful books. .
Jenny: Circling around from the beginning to the end. At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all over again, what, if anything would you change?
Ian: I’m assuming my career started in 2009, when I started writing. The first book was published in 2011, when I turned 65. I am now 71, and I have a contract for six more books.
There will be three more Ava Lees, and I am writing new series on Uncle (one of the secondary characters in the Ava Lee series – Ava’s mentor and partner) – that first book comes out in July . . .
I very honestly couldn’t think of anything I would change. I could not have written these books twenty years ago. It took the confluence of all the circumstances – the time, the experience, the nuns – it took all of that to get me to the point where I could sit down and do it and Ava came out.
It was almost magical – I know it sounds corny. but it was almost magical. I would sit at the computer to write, and I would think I’d been writing for an hour and I’d been writing for eight hours.
I was so absorbed in the process, and yet I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no idea it was going to be publishable. It’s wonderful what you can do, if you just sit down and do it.
Jenny: I suppose you had read so much yourself you probably had the structure in your head.
Ian: Yes though my books are unconventional. There are no bodies in first chapter, they’re not not police procedurals, and quite often you know who did what in terms of the crime right from the beginning . . .
Jenny: Are you actively engaged in the TV series?
Ian: I am a consultant to the TV series and I will get an executive producer credit without doing much executive producing – it’s a perk they throw in. The young woman who is writing the scripts, her name is Karen Walton, she is tremendously talented, she wrote Orphan Black. I am blown away by her talent. She sends me the scripts and I review it. Scripts are just such a different art form, I couldn’t cope with it.
I’ve got my eleventh book coming out in January, The Imam of Tawi-Tawi. My editor is really excited about it, she thinks its the best piece of work we’ve ever done and she is hoping its going to be a big hit everywhere. It’s the best plot I’ve ever done.
Jenny: Yes I believe it also involves the CIA, which is a first for you?
Ian: Yes it involves the CIA, the CIA have to find out how to handle Ava . . It gets into Philippine politics, American politics . . .
Jenny: So how did you research the serpentine world of the CIA? Did you ever have dealings with them in your business life?
Ian: I cannot tell you that. I cannot tell you that. Suffice to say it is quite realistic And then the first Uncle book is coming out, called Fate. Uncle’s story was that he escaped Communist China by swimming to Hong Kong and the first book opens in 1959 with him swimming to Hong Kong and then picks up ten years later when he is a White Paper Fan in a triad gang. Then there is another Ava book coming out, The Goddess of Yantai Jan 2019.
Jenny: You had dealings with triads?
Ian: I bumped into them here and there.
You can’t do business in Hong Kong and some parts without bumping into them. I had a friend, an American business man, who had a meat deal go wrong, and I put him onto someone with triad connections who collected his money for him for a 30 per cent fee.
That’s one of the things when Ava becomes violent in certain circumstances. Uncle is always talking about the greater good. They are not just collecting money, they are restoring people’s lives. I’ve always believed that white collar crime is just as destructive if not more devastating as as any physical crime. I mean look at the damage someone like Bernie Madoff did in terms of destroying people’s lives and the subsequent suicides. Its horrific. Ava and Uncle almost see themselves as guardian angels, restoring people’s lives. that’s where some of the justification comes in.
Jenny: Coming to a conclusion – Where can people find you and your books online?
I’ve no idea where they are in New Zealand and Australia. Online Kobo and Amazon, or through House of Anansi.com They have shipped my books all over the world at a very reasonable cost.
We also have the first two audible books out in a couple of weeks – Wild Beast of Wuhan and The Disciple of Las Vegas, will be on Overdrive Amazon Audible and Ibooks Kobo, and then two more, The Couturier of Milan and the Imam of Tawi-Tawi, will be out in February.
I am on Facebook sporadically usually just talking about the events I am doing and my writing progress. I do a lot of events . . . Sixty events last year, and 40 to 50 this year. In last two weeks I did seven.
Publishers don’t advertise books, so you have to win readers one by one.
I do Book Clubs – and I’ll send out the invitation right now any book club in New Zealand Australia – happy to do an chat with you – I do Book Clubs usually by phone…
Jenny: Thank you so much for your time, Ian, it’s been great to talk.
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